The smart home was going to be big this year; all our stuff was going to be connected via the Internet of Things. I started writing this column a year ago, thinking I would be regularly posting about all the wonderful new devices that would change our lives and our homes, and complaining about the products that were silly and misguided.
The thing that really got me started in all of this was the Nest smart thermostat, and then the Ecovent smart vent, and the whole idea that you would buy thermostats that followed you around or smart vents that opened and closed to balance the temperature around your home. Fundamentally, this means that your home wasn't built properly or balanced appropriately in the first place. My thesis is that dumb homes are better — because they are homes that don't need all this technology.
The Nest is supposed to save you money because it's smart enough to learn your habits and preferences, meaning it heats or cools to your desired temperature when you're in the room. But what if the temperature of your home rarely changes? For instance, in a Passivhaus, or Passive House, there is so much insulation and such high-quality windows that the temperature doesn’t budge. A smart thermostat would be bored stupid; it would have nothing to do. In fact, a smart thermostat works best in a leaky house where the furnace or the air conditioning needs to run all the time, and it would still not be effective.
I thought I would look at all of these new devices through this lens: Do they actually make life better and do something new, or do they just fix problems that we already have better solutions for, or are they just an expensive waste of time and energy?
In How will the smart home change the way we live? I wondered what the ramifications were for architecture and design, noting that "we are going into an era of tumultuous change in how our houses work and how we interact with the things in them."
I'm still waiting for that era to start and have not moved much beyond the Philips Hue LEDs that I showed last January, which I sub-headed: The best is yet to come.
One of the main reasons for the delay is the lack of standards; even the Hue got pulled into the controversy earlier this month when the company changed its software. The Philips Hue bulbs connect on a standard called Zigbee, and a lot of people owned other Zigbee-compliant products — but after the change, suddenly nothing worked but Hue. There was, dare I say, a loud Hue and Cry. Philips backed down pretty quickly, but there's a lesson here. As Bruce Shneier notes in the Atlantic:
As the Internet of Things becomes more prevalent, so too will this kind of anti-competitive behavior — which undercuts the purpose of having smart objects in the first place. We'll want our lightbulbs to communicate with a central controller, regardless of manufacturer. We'll want our clothes to communicate with our dishwasher and our cars to communicate with traffic signs.
Right now, everyone is waiting for one standard to rule them all, and for the Apple or Nest elephants in the room to deliver exciting and useful products. As I noted last July, The smart home really is right around the corner, but many people are waiting for Apple's HomeKit to tie it all together. (And waiting, and waiting.) It's beginning to roll out, but it's painful; to get my Philips Hue bulbs into HomeKit I have to spend $60 to replace the controller hub, and I cannot find any justifiable reason to do so.
It didn't give people a whole lot of confidence when Quirky went bankrupt either; a lot of people had invested in its Wink smart home system. Wink lives on, but there's not a lot of confidence in it after the system crashed after a security update and the company had to replace a large number of units. Furthermore, these systems were supposed to make life easier and give us more control; Wink was supposed to be a system that made it all affordable. But if you read about Adam Clark Estes' experiences in a post with a title I cannot repeat in a family friendly website, you will find that it's anything but.
Then there's the whole issue of security, with the funniest headline of the year coming from CNET, about a fridge that sent out spam emails.
Evidently there's a lot going on in your smart fridge than just chilling. It's no different from a computer when it comes to being compromised and used for cyber attacks. Security company Proofpoint discovered a large-scale attack in late December that “compromised home-networking routers, connected multi-media centers, televisions and at least one refrigerator,” sending out 750,000 spam emails from more than 100,000 devices.
That's why a lot of people are waiting for the Apple Homekit, because Apple is crazed about security.
With Nest Cam, all eyes are on you
There continue to be worries about security. Nest offers the Nest camera, which you can program to only turn on at certain times or when there's movement, but even in their ads, it is shown spying on children licking the icing off a cake. I don't think this is cute. There's also a certain amount of blind trust that what goes into the camera is private and stays private. I thought this stepped over the line. (More on that point: With Nest Cam, all eyes are on you.)
Vampire power is back, and it's thirstier than ever in the new smart home
There's also the issue of vampire power, how much energy all of these smart devices suck up. My Hue smart bulbs in fact consume more energy in total while they're off than they do when they're on. Buying a smart switch for an LED bulb to save energy actually uses more. In fact, almost all the so-called savings we get from LED bulbs are eaten up if they are connected to the smart home. (More on that point: Vampire power is back, and it's thirstier than ever.)
In my first post on the smart home last January, I wrote:
A rabbi once said "My life has been blessed, because I never knew I needed anything until I had it." That's what it's like in this age of the Internet of Things, and what is so exciting about the smart revolution. We have no idea where it's going to take us, what our cities and homes will be like, how it will change the way we live. It never works out the way we think it's going to.
The one thing I did not expect or anticipate was that a year later, we would be in exactly the same place. The smart revolution, with all its changes and promises, is still down the road.